Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Stepsister's Tale Blog Tour (and GIVEAWAY!): Interview with Author Tracy Barrett

I'm thrilled to be a stop on Tracy Barrett's The Stepsister's Tale Blog Tour (See below to enter the giveaway).

Full disclosure: Tracy and I met at an SCBWI regional conference a few years ago (okay, it was like, 10 years ago) and ever since, she's been supportive and generous with her advice and time and friendship.

This month Tracy's hit a very cool milestone: her 20th published book. I read it over the weekend and loved it. Not a surprise. I've enjoyed every book of Tracy's that I've read, and this one's already racked up a couple of starred reviews--from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Page one and I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

I'm always curious about how books come together--and I do want to hear the story behind Stepsister, but since I have Tracy on the line, I'm going to keep her for a while and pick her brain about her other books too, and what it's like to have the kind of career that most of us can only dream about...

Jody: Tracy, let's start with a summary of The Stepsister's Tale.

Tracy: My usual shorthand description of The Stepsister’s Tale is “Cinderella from the point of view of one of her stepsisters” but that’s not really accurate. Instead, it’s the story of a girl who’s struggling desperately to keep her family going despite a dead father and a mother who has checked out of reality. Her life is further complicated when her mother unexpectedly marries a man with a beautiful and spoiled daughter who whines that she’s made to do all the work when in reality she’s just being asked to pull her own weight.

Jody: It IS so much more than a retelling of Cinderella. The world-building, particularly, was what drew me in. And poor Jane (the MC)! The reader feels acutely what she does. I suspect that this wasn't an easy book to write.

Tracy: It took me a long, long time to write. I think that from the time I started it to the time when I signed the publishing contract was seven years! I don’t mean that I wrote all day, every day for seven years, of course—I’d write for a while and hit a snag and put it away for a few months, and then take it out and delete a lot of it and write some more and hit another snag. Finally, with help from my agent, Lara Perkins, I managed to whip it into shape and get it submitted to Annie Stone, my editor at Harlequin Teen, who gave me excellent editorial notes to bring it to a publishable state.

Jody: Why do you think it took so long?

Tracy: Several reasons. First, it was hard to keep Jane in the center—Cinderella, as I could have predicted, kept trying to steal the show and I kept having to wrench the tale away from her. But the toughest challenge came near the end of the story. If Cinderella isn’t the main character and if she doesn’t behave in a way that makes her deserve to live happily ever after, why does she get to marry the handsome prince? This was a problem that took me a long time to break through. The answer (don’t worry—no spoilers!) came to me, as many answers to this kind of problem tend to do, as I was falling asleep. When I woke up, I wrote the ending.

Jody: I love that--that it took sleep to come up with the answer. This is the magical part of writing. Of course, there was also the seven years of thinking and rewriting that you alluded to. When I first started writing, I'd give up when I hit snags like that. If I couldn't figure it out, I'd quit on the project. But you seem to take the struggle as part of the process. Maybe that comes from seeing so many books through from beginning to end--from idea to revision to publication.

And about all of those books...(see the end of this post for the complete list) You've written for elementary, middle grade and young adults. You've got non-fiction and fiction. You've got different genres represented. Mystery. History. Fantasy. Do you see a common denominator--besides the obvious one--that YOU wrote them?!

Tracy: It’s hard to trace a thread through both my fiction and my nonfiction, although I think you could say that history is a big player in all of them. For my novels, I’ve realized recently that most of them tell us more about a character—usually a secondary character—either from history or from a well-known literary work.

Anna of Byzantium is an imagined re-creation of the life of a Byzantine princess who’s well known to historians but not to the general public; King of Ithaka tells part of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachos (Odysseus’ teenage son), and Dark of the Moon is the tale of the minotaur as told by the minotaur’s sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus.

Of course I hope that my readers enjoy these books for their own sake, but I also hope that by reading my novels, they’ll see another layer to the familiar works that inspired me.

Jody: Do you have a favorite?

Tracy: My favorite is always the book I’m working on, so Fairest (to be released in 2015) would have to be the answer to this one.

Jody: I've heard writers say that each book wants to be written in a different way. Is this true in your experience?

Tracy: I pretty much write all my novels in the same way. I almost always have the first chapter—or at least the first page—written in my head before I put anything on “paper” (I write on my computer). All my novels, whether historical or not, involve some research, so I start with general research and gather every interesting or potentially useful fact that I can. I do that until I feel so stuffed with information that I’m going to burst and then I start writing.

Once the story is underway my research gets much more focused—or at least it starts off that way. I might realize I need to know what kind of door locks they had in the Middle Ages, for example, and before I know it an hour has gone by and I know not only about locks but about keys and hinges, and whether doors opened inward or outward, and what the doors were made of, and how they forged the iron for the keys, and all sorts of fascinating details that I’ll never use!

Jody: Do you outline ahead of time?

Tracy: The only time I do is when I write nonfiction and also when I wrote a mystery series (The Sherlock Files). I have a general idea of where things are going but if I know too much, the thrill of discovery is gone and the actual writing feels like homework.

Jody: I noticed that you've worked with several publishing houses. What's your experience been like with different editors?

Tracy: I’ve been fortunate. With one exception (who is no longer in publishing) my editors have been smart, interesting, hardworking people who make my prose sound more like me. I’ve also had terrific copy editors. One was so good that I thanked her in the acknowledgments, which I don’t think is the usual thing! She copy edited King of Ithaka and I know she re-read the Odyssey in preparation, plus she had to have had a dictionary of ancient Greek in front of her as she worked. She caught some awfully subtle things. Better her than a reader!

Jody: That's actually my motto. Copy editors are brilliant people. I thanked mine too. Among other things, she helpfully pointed out that I'd used the word "clench" over 30 times in my book Thin Space.

Okay, now to a subject near and dear to my heart: marketing and promotion. Your first book was published in 1993 and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the business has changed since then for authors.

Tracy: Yes. Promotion has changed a lot and the internet is responsible for much of that change. You know how they say that with the increased ease of doing household chores, we actually spend more time at them than when everything was done by hand—you have a washing machine, so you wash your clothes more often, etc.? I think it’s the same with the internet and promotion. It used to be so difficult and expensive that authors weren’t expected to do much of it.

Now that everyone can hop on-line and make a bookmark or send a mass email or put out an e-newsletter, it’s expected that we’ll do it. This isn’t in my skill set, nor is it in the skill set of most authors, but we have to suck it up and blow our own horn as much as we can.

Jody: Do you have any advice as far as what works/what doesn't? Did any of your books have an unexpected breakout success?

Tracy: I think the success of Anna of Byzantium, my first novel, was unexpected. Its sales (almost 200,000 to date) are largely due to its being required reading in a lot of schools.

Jody: No help from social media back in 1999--

Tracy: No! But now... I’m trying an experiment and have hired an outside publicist for The Stepsister’s Tale, even though Harlequin is doing a more thorough job of publicity than any other publisher I’ve had. I don’t know how I’ll quantify if it made a difference, but I’ll report back after a year if you like!

Jody: I'm going to hold you to that. Thanks so much, Tracy, and congratulations on the publication of your 20th book!

Here's a complete list of Tracy's books to dig into after you read her latest The Stepsister's Tale:  

Nat Turner and the Slave Revolt, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Harpers Ferry: The Story of John Brown’s Raid, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Growing Up in Colonial America, The Millbrook Press, 1995
Virginia, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1997
Tennessee, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1998
Kidding Around Nashville, John Muir Publications, 1998
Kentucky, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1999
Anna of Byzantium, Delacorte Press, 1999; paperback Laurel Leaf Books, 2000 (YA)
The Trail of Tears: An American Tragedy, Perfection Learning Corporation, 2000
Cold in Summer, Henry Holt Books, 2003 (MG/YA)
The Ancient Greek World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press, 2004 (with Jennifer Roberts)
The Ancient Chinese World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press,  2005 (with Terry Kleeman)
On Etruscan Time, Henry Holt Books, 2005 (MG/YA)
The 100-Year-Old Secret, Book 1 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2008; paperback Square Fish, 2010 (MG)
The Beast of Blackslope, Book 2 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2009; paperback Square Fish, 2011 (MG)
The Case that Time Forgot, Book 3 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2010 (MG)
The Missing Heir, Book 4 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2011, paperback Square Fish, 2012 (MG)
King of Ithaka, Henry Holt Books, 2010, paperback Square Fish, 2014 (YA)
Dark of the Moon, Harcourt Children’s Books, 2011, paperback Graphia, 2012 (YA)
The Stepsister’s Tale, Harlequin Teen, 2014 (YA)
Fairest, Harlequin Teen, 2015 (contracted) (YA)

About The Stepsister’s Tale:
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

What really happened after the clock struck midnight?

Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire.

When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...

From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's stunning retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.

About Tracy Barrett
Website | Twitter | Facebook
Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books and magazine articles for young readers.

She holds a Bachelor's Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly interests in the ancient and medieval worlds overlap in her fiction and nonfiction works.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study medieval women writers led to the writing of her award-winning young-adult novel, Anna of Byzantium (Delacorte). Her most recent publications are King of Ithaka, a young-adult novel based on Homer's Odyssey; and the fourth book in The Sherlock Files, The Missing Heir (both Henry Holt) and Harcourt's young-adult retelling of the myth of the Minotaur, Dark of the Moon.

From 1999 to 2009 Tracy Barrett was the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth (Tennessee and Kentucky) with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She is now SCBWI's Regional Advisor Coordinator.

Tracy has taught courses on writing for children and on children's literature at various institutions and frequently makes presentations to groups of students, librarians, teachers, and others.

For an example of Tracy's presentations at writers' conferences, please see this article from Clarksville Online.

She recently resigned from Vanderbilt University, where she taught Italian, Women's Studies, English, and Humanities. 

Tour Schedule:

Monday, June 9th - Fiktshun (Character Interview)
Tuesday, June 10th - Harlequin Blog
Wednesday, June 11th - Xpresso Reads (Guest Post)
Friday June 13th - About To Read (Guest Post)

Monday, June 16th - The Irish Banana (Author Interview)
Tuesday, June 17th - On the Verge
Wednesday, June 18th - Refracted Light Reviews (Guest Post)
Friday June 20th - The Book Cellar (Guest Post)

Contest Info:

Each tour stop is offering up a copy of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as some very fun Cinderella-themed swag, and one winner will receive a fantastic Grand Prize Package including the following HarlequinTEEN titles: 2 copies of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as copies of THE QUEEN’S CHOICE, DROWNED, WITCHSTRUCK and OCEANBORN. Giveaway is open to US/Canada.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, June 12, 2014

When Jokes Never Get Old (OR Why I Decided to Get a Tattoo)

A few days after I got my driver's license, my mom asked me to drive my little brother Frankie to his friend's house across town. I was still a tad anxious about driving (I'd nearly failed my test. Probably I SHOULD'VE failed my test, but this is a story for another day.)

Anyway, I was trying to be conscientious and mature-like, while also channeling a Cool Older Sister vibe as I drove. I came to a stop sign and noticed a couple of young kids riding bikes waiting to cross the street. I waved my hand and said, "You can go," and idled there for a moment while the kids crossed.


But oh, this was so not the end of this story. Frankie, who was eleven at the time, made fun of me mercilessly for days. He turned the story into a joke. According to him, I had waved at the young kids on the bikes and said loudly, in a sing-songy voice: "YOU CAN GOOOOO." This he joyfully mimicked accompanied by exaggerated hand gestures.

Days turned into weeks. Into months. Into years.

It's a family story now--"Jody Waves at the Bike Riders and Tells them You Can Go." And it's morphed into me rolling down the window, getting out of the car, walking the bikers across the street, sing-songing "you can go" the whole time.

Only a couple of months ago, I heard the story at least twice. Frankie--now called Frank, mature and responsible business owner and father of two--retold it gleefully at a family reunion when I was on a book tour in CT. My son (who freaking wasn't even in existence when I was 16) quoted the story, complete with hand gestures when I was driving him to lunch one day. We both cracked up.

This oft told story turned joke is only one example of how my family tends to beat a joke into the ground. Yes. Where others might find a joke getting stale, we are just getting started. We don't beat a joke into the ground, we shoot it through a fracking tube a mile down into the earth's crust. And somehow it only becomes funnier to us.

What does this have to do with tattoos? you might be wondering.

Bear with me. So I am about to leave on a group author tour to California in a few weeks and I am thrilled and excited and slightly anxious. I only know the other tour-ers virtually but they all seem nice, and one of them suggested jokingly (or maybe not jokingly--I DON'T KNOW) that we should get matching tattoos to celebrate our group tour-i-ness.

I laughed out loud at the thought. Let's just say, I am not the type of person who gets a tattoo. The type of person I picture getting a tattoo is young and hip and trendy and cool. In other words, if I got a tattoo, that would be the very definition of absurd.

But I kept thinking about it. And every time I thought about it, I'd start laughing. It's silly and ridiculous and weird, and yet-- funny.

Then it hit me, why NOT get a tattoo? And thinking of myself actually doing it, made me laugh more.

I'm not talking a giant serpent or skull and cross bones on my chest,  but something small. Something tasteful. Something kinda hidden, but not.

I made up my mind, while chuckling to myself. I decided I want to get a small footprint-looking graphic (to represent the guy in my book Thin Space) on my ankle.

A foot on my foot. (Yes, I am smiling as I write this.)

I told one of my friends and she was very perturbed. "Tattoos really aren't you," she said. "It's permanent," she added.

Well, yeah. I get that. I tried to explain how happy it made me feel just to think about it. "It's funny to me," I said.

"Okay," she said. "But what if that joke gets old?"

"Ha!" I smiled wider. "Jokes never get old with me."

She didn't get it.

I waved at her and told her she could go.

Friday, June 6, 2014

California Here I Come...Summer Lovin' 2.0 Tour

Woot Woot!

In two weeks I am going to California for my first ever official book tour and I am pretty darned pumped about it. Also, a tad anxious (if you remember my travel anxiety/weirdo cleaning the house before traveling issues) But I am trying to push those anxieties aside and embrace the Now.

The Now = a 6 day/6 city trip through California.

Check out this cool poster designed by Suzanne Young's friend at Novel Novice

I have only been to California once, last year for the SCBWI conference in LA and had a grand old time. So I have high hopes for this trip.

Something awesome: the Simon & Schuster publicist who is arranging everything sent each of us a packet of books by the other participating authors. I got my packet last week and was a tad anxious about this too. I confess that I had never read books by these particular authors before. What if I didn't, um, like their books?

But I am happy to report that I did. In fact, I stayed up waaaay late the other night reading the last of my packet, The Program by Suzanne Young. 

This book is a page turner. It's a bleak dystopian world where the teenagers are passing around a virus that makes them suicidal. A powerful organization called the Program has swooped in to save the kids by erasing their memories, which they see as the cause of the virus. The main character Sloane is terrified of catching the suicide bug but she's more terrified of the cure. She doesn't want to forget her beloved brother or her boyfriend James.

This book wrecked me and all I can say is Thank you Simon & Schuster for also sending me the sequel The Treatment so I can see what becomes of these poor sweet kids.

Momentary digression: In the midst of all of this travel planning excitement, I've been finishing up the final touches on a novel that I have been struggling with since 2009. See here, here, here, and here, for a fun recap of the latest leg of the journey. (For the record, this is not my "second" book. Thin Space is the 6th book I've written, so we are talking Numero 7 here. Sad truth: each day's writing is harder than the day before. Inspirational truth: if you keep writing anyway, you will eventually break through. I am living proof of that. Yesterday I clicked Send and shot that bad boy off to my agent... who happens to live in California.

Coincidence? I think not.)

I've got a bit of time on my hands between projects, is my point, and this book tour and the reading of my fellow author tour-ers' books could not have come at a better time.

One of my reading goals this year was to discover a YA writer I've somehow missed along the way (See here for my 2014 Flexy Book Category Challenge) Well, the hands down winning writer in that category is Sarah Ockler.

Her new novel #Scandal, out this month, is her fifth book. It's got the perfect mixture of humor and angst and cleverness that I love in YA books.

The story begins with main character Lucy agreeing to go to the prom with her best friend Ellie's boyfriend Cole because poor Ellie's got the flu. Secret: Lucy's had a raging crush on Cole for years.

Yeah, so you get the feeling fast that things aren't going to turn out well for Lucy--but HOW they turn out is what makes this story so much fun. Throw in the amped up cyber high school gossip machine, a visiting reality TV show star, a fringe club protesting all forms of social media, and a cute foreign exchange student from Canada and well... I don't want to ruin it for you.

Last but so not least of my Summer Lovin' author buds is C.J. Flood and her debut novel Infinite Sky. This was actually the first novel I read in the packet because I love the cover so much. I also confess to have a secret girl writer crush on C.J. based entirely on our social media interactions. Everything she says sounds so British. (I suspect this is because C.J. is from England.) When I first found out who would be on this tour, I immediately checked everyone's websites out. This post is worth a read, among other things, because of C.J.'s suggestion that all of us should get matching tattoos.

I laughed out loud when I read that, and then, after a beat, I started seriously thinking about it. What better way to celebrate this surreal amazing crazy dream come true debut writing year of mine than a tattoo? (I took a poll around my house, which consisted of asking my husband and teen daughter at breakfast. Their response: no response, just snorty snickers accompanied by eyerolls. Ah. Well. This is what you get when you have your debut year at the age of, erm, cough cough cough, 46. Cough.)

(The British cover--
which I like better
than the US cover. Sorry.)
Okay, back to C.J.'s book. It's so beautifully written it just about killed me.

Almost fourteen year old Iris is floundering around the house after her Mum leaves the family. Enter: a camp of Irish Travelers in the field across the street. (I didn't know much about this group before I read the book, but apparently, they move around England--and the US too, much like gypsies and experience quite a bit of prejudice wherever they settle.)

Iris befriends one of the Travelers, a boy named Trick, despite warnings from her father and older brother, both of whom are struggling too by Mum's abandonment. I loved everything about this novel. The world, the fully drawn characters, the gorgeous prose, but most of all the aching romance between Iris and Trick. There is an anxious tension that drives the narrative. You will not be able to put it down.

Here's something funny that I figured out after reading the books: they're not what you'd called summery or lovin'-y. But we are going to go with the flow on this.

If you live in the California, please please please come by and see us. I am told there will be pizza.

Also, we may be sporting matching tattoos.